This selection of thirty fairy tales and legends from the deepest corners of Herefordshire reflect the wisdom of the countryside and its people. There are strange happenings in the peaceful county, formed from early attempts to explain the natural and spiritual world, as well as dark tales of revenge resulting from clashes on the Welsh Borders. From the Saxon king of East Anglia who became the patron saint of Hereford Cathedral, and the story of the black hound of Hergest Court which inspired Arthur Conan Doyle, to a medieval love story, these gripping tales have stood the test of time, and remain classic texts which will be enjoyed time and again by modern readers.
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About the Author
David Phelps is a local storyteller who brings his entertaining performances to audiences across the county.
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Herefordshire Folk Tales
By David Phelps
The History PressCopyright © 2011 David Phelps
All rights reserved.
A LOVE TOKEN
IF YOU TELL AN AUDIENCE THAT YOU ARE ABOUT TO TELL THEM A LOVE STORY, HALF THE AUDIENCE GROANS AND WISHES THEY HAD STAYED HOME TO WATCH THE FOOTBALL ON TELLY. BUT THIS IS A MEDIEVAL LOVE STORY, AND SO A BIT MORE ROBUST THAN THE ONES WE ARE USED TO.
The manor of Much Cowarne, in the rolling hills east of Hereford was, in the thirteenth century, owned by a knight called Grimbald Pauncefote. No greater example of chivalry lived in the county. He could leap onto his horse in full armour, pierce an apple with his lance from a galloping horse and be the last man standing in a mêlée, the final challenge in a tournament when all knights fought together. Such a man, though poor in land and fortune, could have found himself a lady from any of the greatest families in the country. Instead he turned his eye on Constantia, the daughter of Sir John Lingen. They had known each other since childhood and, although she did not come with money or land, she came with long blonde hair down to her waist, a high forehead and a bright sparkle in her blue eyes. And her hands were white and unblemished with long tapering fingers, skilled in the arts of weaving and love. So it was to her that he gave a fine gold ring, embossed with the three lions rampant, his badge that all knights had come to fear in the tournament.
One would think that a man such as Grimbald would be happy enough with his lot, with a fine wife and fine lands, but he was young and wiser councils whispered into his ears. They said that there was honour to be won in the Crusades, that a man of such prowess must test himself in foreign wars. Quietly he looked at his wife and thought how proud she would be if he came back with glory from the Holy Land.
So, one sad day, he bade farewell to his wife and his manor and he rode out to seek fame. As he rode away he looked back to see his wife standing as still as a statue at the manor gates and he saw the sun shining on his fields and for all the world he would have turned his horse around and returned. But he was a man of honour and knew he could do no such thing. So he rode on to see what fate would befall him.
This crusade, which only aimed to bring enlightenment to the pagan, did not go well. I am not sure if any crusade has ever gone well. Instead of charging madly at the enemy as soon as he is seen, as any good Christian knight will, the Turks hid behind hills, they attacked from behind and employed many other stratagems that led to the death of many a good knight.
The leader of the crusade, King Louis of France, was riding through the desert one day with his knights all about him. The heat was fierce and the knight riding behind the king let his lance slip so that it fell on the helmet of the king. His brains boiling in the heat, King Louis immediately guessed that he was being attacked. Drawing his sword and crying 'For God and St Denis!' he charged towards an empty sand dune.
His distraught followers raced after him and were eventually able to get him off his horse, rip off his helmet and douse his head with water. But it was too late. The king's brains had been permanently addled and a merciful God soon put an end to his suffering. We know this good man as St Louis, for the martyrdom he suffered for the cause.
All hope for success was now lost and, in the last desperate battle, Grimbald was captured by the Sultan of Tunis. He was brought before this fearsome despot, but Grimbald retained his courage and he said 'My lord, it is the custom of my country to ransom any prisoners of quality that are taken. I am not a wealthy man but I offer you what riches and land I have.'
The sultan laughed and he said 'Look around you. See the silks and jewels and gold in my court. What riches have you that would interest me? And what would I want with lands in a far off country of which I know nothing and care even less.'
So Grimbald fell silent, expecting his death.
But the sultan said 'One thing I do need and that is a eunuch for my harem. You have a fine figure. It is a role that would fit you very well.'
And now Grimbald, for all that his face was burnt brown by the sun, turned pale for there are some things that a man fears more than death. He fell on his knees and he cried 'Great sultan, have mercy on me. At home I have a young wife who loves me above all other men. She has done nothing to harm you. Please let me return home to her.'
And the sultan sat back on his great gold throne and he said 'There is little mercy that you Frankish knights have shown my own people but this I will offer you, to show you that people of the faith can show mercy. Send word to your wife and if, within a year and a day, she can return to you a love token that will show me that she really loves you above all other men, then I will let you go.'
So a messenger was sent to the crusader's camp and, a few months later, a weary traveller came to the manor of Much Cowarne and he gave to Lady Constantia the message from the sultan.
And Lady Constantia retired alone to her chamber and all that dark night she thought of what token she could send. A red rose? No, anyone can send such a thing. One of Grimbald's fine hunting dogs? No, surely her love was greater than a dog. And then, as dawn was breaking over the fields of Much Cowarne, she thought of what she could send and that morning she sent to Gloucester for a man who could help her in her task.
A year and a day after the sultan had issued his challenge, a weary traveller arrived at the sultan's court and he was carrying an oak casket.
He said 'Great and mighty sultan. This has been sent from the Frankish camp, sent from the Lady Constantia to her lord.'
Grimbald was sent for and the sultan said 'Now open the casket and let us all see what your lady has sent you to show that she loves you above all men.'
Grimbald went to the casket and he lifted the lid. Then he stood back in horror. He let out a terrible cry, his hands pulled at his hair in despair and he fell on the ground sobbing.
The sultan was amazed. 'What love token can have this effect?' he said.
He too went over to the casket and looked inside and he too flinched back in horror. Because in the casket was a mummified human hand. The sultan looked more closely and he saw that the hand was small and delicate, a woman's hand. And he looked closer and he saw the fingers were long and tapering. It was the hand of a beautiful woman. And he looked closer and he saw, on one of the fingers, a gold ring with three lions embossed on it, just like those on Grimbald's coat.
And he looked closer and he saw there was a parchment in the casket and he picked it out and gave it to his Vizier.
'You understand their writing. What does this say?'
The Vizier read the parchment and, as he did so, even though he was an old and hard man and had sent many men to their deaths, tears came into his eyes.
'Great sultan,' he said 'It says "This have I done for love of my lord".'
For the man Lady Constantia had sent for was the surgeon of Gloucester Priory; a man who had learned from the Turks the skill to be able to take off a hand with the flick of his knife and to cauterize the wound with black tar to stop the bleeding.
The sultan sat down on his gold throne and he was quiet for many moments. Then finally he spoke.
'Grimbald, go, you are free, because your lady has answered me. I control the fate of many and men will do anything for fear of me, but I know that no one would do this for love of me. Go home and take with you as much silk as you can carry. Take as many jewels and gold coins as you can fit into your pack. But promise me one thing; that, once you are home, you will never leave your lady's side again, for a woman like this deserves to be treated with respect.'
Many months later the steward of Much Cowarne was checking the sheep when he saw a horseman riding along the road from Hereford. There was something familiar about the way he rode that put him in mind of the man whom he most wanted to see riding along that road. But, as the horseman came closer, the steward saw it could not be him because the man he was looking for was a young man and this man was old. His hair was white, his shoulders were stooped and there were deep lines on his face.
Then, as the horseman came closer, the steward looked into the man's eyes and he saw the man he was hoping for and he ran to the horse and helped the man from the saddle, and he cried out 'Lord, you have returned to us!'
The other servants heard the noise and they too came running and there was loud cheering and great joy. But Grimbald, as he shook their hands, saw there was one who was standing aloof from the celebration, the one he most wanted to greet stayed apart from the merry-making.
He pushed his way through the crowd and approached his lady but Lady Constantia said 'No! Don't come any closer, for I am much changed since you last saw me and I am ashamed for you to see me like this.'
But Grimbald ran to her and knelt before her and he lifted her arm and he kissed the stump and he said 'Lady, you are more beautiful to me today than you ever were. I too am much changed. My hair is white and I am stooped like an old man. But more importantly, when I went away I was a fool. In the desert I learned wisdom. I have made a vow to the Sultan of Tunis that I will not leave your side again.'
The couple embraced and they were reconciled and Grimbald kept to his vow and they lived together as well as a man and woman can, and when Death finally came to separate them they went together to Much Cowarne church and they sleep there still. Although you cannot now see their tomb, this story is still told to show the power of love. But if a wise man hears the tale he may learn not to take love for granted.CHAPTER 2
AN INDEPENDENT BISHOP
STRICTLY SPEAKING, THIS IS A WORCESTERSHIRE TALE, BUT IT APPEARS IN MRS LEATHER'S CLASSIC FOLKLORE OF HEREFORDSHIRE, SO THERE IS CLEARLY A HEREFORDSHIRE CONNECTION. IN THE IRON AGE HEREFORDSHIRE, WORCESTERSHIRE AND GLOUCESTERSHIRE WERE ALL PART OF THE DOBUNNI TRIBAL REGION, SO THERE WILL ALWAYS BE A STRONG LINK.
Being king was not nearly as much fun as King John thought it would be. When he had only been a prince he had schemed and plotted continuously against his father and brother, Henry II and Richard the Lionheart, in order to become king. Now he found it was terrible hard work.
He was in Worcester so he went off to the cathedral to see if he could get a bit of peace. But he found the place was a building site. It had come into a bit of money and was using it to make itself a bit bigger.
He went up to one of the stone masons and asked him what he was doing, the way monarchs are supposed to do.
'Just cutting this piece of stone.'
'Dunno. I've just been told to.'
A little depressed the king moved on to another mason.
'And what are you doing?'
'This is going to be a gargoyle.'
Encouraged, the king continued. 'What do they do?'
'Dunno. I carve gargoyles. My father made gargoyles, and my grandfather made gargoyles before him.'
Thinking he was the king of a nation of oafs, the king walked on until he came to another mason who was humming quietly to himself as he worked.
'Why not.' thought the king. 'I may as well talk to three fools today as two.'
'What are you doing my man?'
The man turned, with a great smile on his face. 'I'm making a cathedral!'
King John was so pleased to find somebody in his kingdom who was happy in his work that he thought that it would not be too bad a thing, when the time came, to be buried himself in the cathedral that this mason had made, so he went off to see the bishop, to see how this might be arranged.
When he came to the Bishop's Palace he saw a sign on the door in Latin saying 'This is the home of the Independent Bishop of Worcester.'
There was nothing more guaranteed to make him angry. Heaven knew he had enough trouble keeping control of his nobles and now here was this bishop proclaiming that he was independent.
He burst through the doors of the palace and came upon the bishop just as he was devouring a capon.
'What the devil do you mean by that sign, that you are the Independent Bishop of Worcester?'
'My lord, I mean no harm by it.' said the discomforted prelate.
'No harm! Well, I'll show you what harm it is. Last night there was a full moon. On the night of the next full moon I shall expect you at my castle in Winchester and there you shall answer me three questions. If you fail in answering any of those questions then I do not think you will be the Independent Bishop of Worcester for much longer, because even the Pope won't let a man be bishop if he has no head on his shoulders.
The king stormed out, leaving the bishop bitterly regretting having put that sign at his door. In the evening he went outside to get some fresh air to see if that would clear his head.
There was one mason still working., the last the king had spoken to. Eventually the mason saw him there and he put down his tools.
'Why so glum Lord Bishop?' He was a Hereford man and so regarded any as his equal.
'I'm thinking it is better to be a stone mason than the Independent Bishop of Worcester.'
The mason laughed. 'I reckon we just have to get on and do the jobs the good Lord has given us and to do them the best we can.'
The bishop told the mason the tale of the king's visit and how he was not likely to be the Independent Bishop of Worcester for much longer.
'Is that all?' said the mason.
'It is enough.' said the bishop.
'I think it is a thing that is easily remedied. Does the king know you well?'
'We only met today.'
'Good, because he only saw me today for the first time as well. If he is like any other man he will remember the clothes more than the face. If I can borrow the suit of clothes you are wearing now I will be happy to go to Winchester in your place and answer the king. The bishop was more than happy that this should be so.
The moon waned and then started to wax and it was time for the mason to go to Winchester. He put on the bishop's mitre all encrusted with jewels. He put on the bishop's fur mantle over his old clothes and he rode off in the bishop's fine horse so that, if they met on the road, their own mothers would have been hard put to it to tell the difference.
He came to the king's court and there was the king sitting on his throne and around him all his nobles waiting to see what would happen. But he was a mason and that did not worry him. He walked up to the king, bowed and said 'How fares your lordship this fine day?'
There was something familiar about him but the king assumed that this was the bishop he had met a month ago. 'Well enough.' the king replied, 'Let us hope you fare as well after you have answered my questions.'
'That we shall see.' said the mason.
'So, how soon can I travel all around the world?'
'You can do that in a day.'
'What! Are you a fool? It takes me weeks to travel all around my kingdom. How can I travel around the world in a day?'
'You can if you go with the sun because he is overhead at noon, goes all around the world and then is overhead again at midday.'
There was laughter around the court and cries of 'Well done.' and 'That's one for the bishop.'
The king was not worried. He still had two questions left. 'Very well then; now tell me how much I am worth.'
'Nothing at all.'
There was a sharp intake of breath around the court.
'What do you mean by that?'
'Only one man in this world was ever worth anything and that was our Saviour; he was sold for thirty pieces of silver. Against that you, me or any man, is not worth anything.'
Again there was laughter around the court. 'True again.' 'Another to the bishop!'
The king was not worried. He still had his best question.
'Now you must tell me what I am thinking.'
'You think I am the Independent Bishop of Worcester, but I am really the stone mason you met in the yard.'
With that he took off the jewelled mitre and threw the fur mantle to the ground, revealing his old stone mason's clothes beneath. There was silence in the court while the nobles looked at the king to see how he would take it.
Then the king laughed and he had not laughed so much in many a year, so all the court laughed and everyone felt better about themselves.
'The bishop has answered my questions, even if he had to send a servant to do it. You can go back to Worcester and tell the real bishop he can keep his head on his shoulders.'
The stone mason was given a good quantity of gold coins to take back with him, though he said it would not change him, he would remain a stone mason. He went back to tell the bishop the good news, that he was still the Independent Bishop of Worcester. But the bishop thought that it would be best to take down the sign and live a more modest life in future.
Excerpted from Herefordshire Folk Tales by David Phelps. Copyright © 2011 David Phelps. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ONE A LOVE TOKEN,
TWO AN INDEPENDENT BISHOP,
THREE BLACK VAUGHAN,
FOUR FAIRY OINTMENT,
FIVE HEUNO WITH THE TEETH,
SIX JACK THE GIANT KILLER,
SEVEN JACKIE KENT,
EIGHT KING DRIBBLER,
NINE KING HERLA,
TEN LADY BLUEFOOT,
ELEVEN NELL GWYN,
TWELVE OLD TAYLOR'S GHOST,
FOURTEEN SAINT ETHELBERT,
FIFTEEN THE BAKER'S DAUGHTER,
SIXTEEN THE BOY AND THE FAIRIES,
SEVENTEEN THE COCKYARD WITCH,
EIGHTEEN THE ENCHANTED PISS-POT,
NINETEEN THE FAIRY CHANGELING,
TWENTY THE GHOST OF BRONSIL CASTLE,
TWENTY-ONE THE KING OF THE CATS,
TWENTY-TWO THE LITTLE TAILOR OF YARPOLE,
TWENTY-THREE THE MAN WITH THE HATCHET,
TWENTY-FOUR THE MERMAID OF MARDEN,
TWENTY-FIVE THE MORDIFORD DRAGON (MODERN VERSION),
TWENTY-SIX THE OLD 'UN IN HEREFORDSHIRE,
TWENTY-SEVEN THE SHEPHERD AND THE CROWS,
TWENTY-EIGHT THE SPECTRE'S VOYAGE,
TWENTY-NINE THE THIRTY-SIXTH FOOT,
THIRTY THE TREASURE OF ST WEONARD'S,